Game design lessons learned from World of Warcraft - Part 2
Published on May 01, 2009
game design gaming
While Part 1 touched on abstract decisions affecting game design (and admittedly turned into a rant by the end, I'm kind of bad at that), part 2 here will focus on a few of Blizzard's design decisions for WoW that we can learn from, and in Part 3 I'm going to touch on my ideas and observations on the game's PvP and PvE.
Now of course I can't list, or even think about, most of the design decisions that have helped towards making WoW the massive success that it is, but there are a few decisions, both good and bad, that have hit close to home for me, decisions that I have to work with or around every time I play. Were I to be on the WoW dev team, these are some of the things I'd be recommending.
Wow is all about gear because character power advancement is built completely around the stats. The stats in WoW are Strength (STR), Agility (AGI), Intellect (INT), Spirit (SPI), and Stamina (STA), and they are directly related to how powerful your character is, or at least they should be.
In WoW, stat allocations over the various classes has always felt arbitrary, and frankly it's a very complicated system that doesn't need to be, which has lead to serious balancing issues between Melee and Caster classes that have yet to and probably will never be fixed.
For example, a Warrior gets two Attack Power (AP) (stat on which all abilities scale, thus directly related to damage output) per point of strength. Rogues and Hunters get their Attack Power from AGI (Hunter is considered a "Ranged Melee" class by the game). However, Mages get a 1% increase chance to crit every 60 INT along with 100 mana per one point of INT, while Spell Power comes purely from items themselves. SPI gives a DPS boost to Warlocks because of a skill that class has, but anyone else just gets mana regen (as of 3.1, SPI does give very small amounts of crit now too), making it a very important stat for some healing classes, but not all.
When WoW first came out, progression for DPS caster classes, especially Mages, stopped hard at level 60. The game did not have the stat Spell Power, so the only benefits Mages got from gear was higher health in STA and more mana / crit with INT. The game did have Attack Power, so melee were outscaling Mages exponentially, who were simply able to cast spells longer. Since then, caster DPS scaling has been an issue.
A much, much simpler system of making INT behave like STR would have gone a long way towards simplifying scaling from the beginning. If your game is going to have stats, make them consistent. Arbitrary decisions will lead to big problems, and sooner than you'd expect.
All stats need to scale to appropriate levels and then some
Following the above, make sure those stat decisions actually do scale into the foreseeable future. It is surprising to see a Blizzard lead designer explicitly say that they check the scaling of all classes only through to the next patch or expansion (which ever is nearer) and fix problems as they crop up. I can't begin to imagine the amount of work that would have been saved had more care been taking at the beginning to make stats less complicated and properly scale for longer than just the next tier of gear.
Character resource decisions can make or break balancing
The Death Knight uses a Runes and Runic Power resource system. The DK expends Runes on certain attacks, those attacks build Runic Power, from which the DK then uses other abilities that deplete the Runic Power. Any rotation a DK choses can be kept going forever.
Rogue energy is always refilling and simply serves to put a "cast time" on rogue abilities. Rogues can fight forever.
Warriors have Rage. Warriors gain Rage when they hit with white attacks or get hit. They then use this Rage to use special attacks. This system, while dependent on Rage income, can be kept going forever.
Casters use Mana, and can run out. They cannot fight forever. This is a very poor decision that has caused numerous problems with fight balancing, character balancing, and makes PvPing with these classes especially difficult.
Healers are not included in this. Healers running out of mana is a very valid 'soft enrage' system to put on a raid. If a healer could go forever, then any fight is easily trivialized.
Warhammer got it right: every class uses a refilling energy system like the WoW Rogue.
Incentives drive player inclusion
Converse to that, disinsentives do drive players to not participate. When you're dealing with a group of people, it really is quite easy to predict what that group will do. For example, by adding Battlegrounds and gear rewards for doing those battlegrounds, Blizzard completely destroyed World PvP. Why spend hours ganking people in the world when at least you get rewards for doing it in a Battleground?
Nothing has refreshed WoW like Achievements. Giving people the ability to show off their exploits, to be rewarded for taking on hard content, or for committing acts of crazy mindlessness (see: The Loremaster) helps keep players busy with tasks they otherwise have not done, along with just straight keeping them in-game and paying. Nothing helps a game's population than more ways for people to show off what they've done.
Special time-specific events are always a big hit for players, but they usually are very time consuming to implement and it's rare that every player gets to participate in said events. WoW's system of having set events that happen throughout the year, every year, help to make sure that as many players as possible can experience this specially crafted content. Hooking achievements to world events was of course a brilliant idea, and has made players actually look forward to the next event, preparing and planning.
Mistakes have been made, but it cannot be denied that Blizzard hit on the recipe for hugely successful MMO. It's easy to get into, easy to play, difficult to master, and full of content for everyone, from the PvPer to the PvEer to the players that just hang out with friends. There's a lot to be learned from this game, and I'm sure designers will be using WoW as a template for many years to come.
Part 3 will be my (hopefully not to angry) rant on the decision Blizzard made to try to turn a PvE game into a PvP game, and the constant balancing work that has and is going into both sides of this game.
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